St. Ignatius (Brianchaninov). "On prelest". About Night Dreams.
Demons use dreams to disturb and injure human souls. Likewise, inexperienced monks, by paying attention to their dreams, harm themselves. It is therefore essential here to determine the exact significance of dreams in a person whose nature has not yet been renewed by the Holy Spirit.
During sleep, the state of a sleeping person is so designed by God that the whole man is in complete repose. This repose is so complete that a person loses consciousness of his existence and is in a state of oblivion or self-forgetfulness. During sleep, all voluntary activities and labour governed by the will and reason stop. Only that activity continues that is essential for existence and cannot be relinquished. In the body, the blood continues its circulation, the stomach digest food, the lungs maintain respiration, the skin perspires. In the soul, thoughts, fantasies, and sensations continue to be produced, only without dependence on the will and reason, but by the action of our unconscious nature.
A dream consists of such fantasies accompanied by their peculiar thoughts and sensations. It often seems strange, as if it bore no relations to the person's voluntary and purposeful thoughts and imaginings, but appears spontaneously and whimsically in accordance with a law and demand of nature. Sometimes a dream bears an incoherent impression of voluntary thoughts and fancies, while sometime is a result of a particularly moral state of mind. Thus, a dream in itself cannot and should not have any significance. The desire of certain people to see in the ravings of the dreams a prediction of their future or the future of others or some other meaning is ludicrous and quite illogical. How can that be which has no cause for its existence?
The demons, who have access to our souls during our waking hours, have access also during sleep. And during sleep they are tempting us to sin by mixing their fantasy with our fantasy. Also when they observe in us a regard for dreams, they try to increase our interest in our dreams. Then by arousing greater attention to these ravings, they gradually lead us to put our trust in them. Such trust is always accompanied by conceit, and conceit makes our mental view of ourselves false, whence all our activity becomes unsound. This is just what the demons want. To those who are advanced in this self-opinionated state, the demons begin to appear in the form of angels of light, in the form of martyrs and saints, even in the form of the Mother of God and of Christ Himself. They applaud the way these miserable ones are living, promise them heavenly crowns, and in this way they lead them to the height of self-opinion and pride.
This height is at the same time the abyss of perdition. We need to know beyond a shadow of doubt that in our present state, while still un-renewed by grace, we are unfit to see dreams other that those concocted for our harm by the guile of the demons. As during our waking state thoughts and fancies constantly and unceasingly arise within us from our fallen nature or are brought about by demons, so during sleep we see only dreams doe to the action of our fallen nature or the action of demons.
Just as our consolation during our waking state springs from compunction born of a realization of our sins, remembrance of death and God's judgment – only these thoughts arise in us from the grace of God planted in us by holy baptism and are brought to us by God's angels in proportion to our repentance – so, too, during sleep, very rarely, in extreme need, angels of God picture or represent to us our end, or hellish torment, or the threatening judgment at death and beyond the grave. From such dreams, we come to the fear of God, to compunction, to weeping over ourselves. But such dreams are given extremely rarely to an ascetic or even to a flagrant and outrageous sinner by the inscrutable and special Providence of God; they are given extremely rarely not on account of the stinginess of divine grace - no! It is because all that happens to us outside the general run leads us to pride and self-opinion and undermines our humility that is so essential for our salvation.
The will of God, the fulfillment of which is man's salvation, is expressed in Holy Scripture so clearly, so forcibly, and in such detail that to assist the salvation of men by breaking the ordinary course of things is superfluous and unnecessary.
To one who asked for the resurrection of a dead man, that he might be sent to his brothers to warn them to cross from the broad road to the narrow way, it is said, “They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.” But when the petitioner retorted, “Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent”, he received the reply, “If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.”(Luke 16:27-31)
Experience has shown that many who were granted in their sleep visions of ordeals, of the fearful judgment and other horrors beyond the grave - were shaken by the vision for a short time, but then became dissipated, forgot what they had seen, and led a careless life. On the other hand, those who have had no visions of any kind but have carefully studied the divine law, have gradually come to the fear of God, have attained spiritual proficiency and victory, and in joy born of an intimation of salvation have passed from the earthly vale of sorrows to a blessed eternity.
St John Climacus discussed the part played by demons in the dreams of monks in the following manner: “When we leave our homes and relatives for the Lord's sake, and sell ourselves into exile for the love of God, then the demons try to disturb us with dreams, representing to us that our relatives are either grieving or dying, or are held captive for our sake and are destitute. But he who believes in dreams is like a person running after his own shadow and trying to catch it.
Demons of vainglory prophesy in dreams. As tricksters, they guess the future and foretell it to us. When these vision come true, we are amazed: and we are elated with the thought that we are already near to the gift of foreknowledge. A demon is often a prophet for those who believe in him; but he is always a liar for those who despise him. Being a spirit, he sees what is happening in this lower air; and noticing that someone is dying, he foretells it through dreams to the more superficial sort. The demons know nothing about the future from foreknowledge. If they did, then the sorcerers and fortune-tellers would also have been able to foretell our death.
Demons often transform themselves into angels of light and take the form of martyrs, and make it appear to us during sleep that we are in communication with them. Then, when we wake up, they plunge us into unholy joy and conceit. But this is the sign of diabolic delusion and that you are being deceived. For angels reveal torments, judgments, and separations; and when we wake up, we find we are trembling and sad.
As soon as we begin to believe the demons in dreams, then they make sport of us when we are awake, too. He who believes in dreams is completely inexperienced. But he who distrust all dreams is a wise man. Only believe dreams that warn you of torments and judgment. But if despair afflicts you, then such dreams are also from demons.” (Addition to the Sermon 3 of St John Climacus)
St John Cassian tells of a monk, a native of Mesopotamia, who led a most solitary and ascetic life, but perished through being deceived by diabolic dreams. Observing that the monk paid little attention to his spiritual development and gave all his attention to bodily efforts which he esteemed and consequently himself, too, the devils began to set dreams before him, which by their diabolic cunning came true in actual fact.
When the monk's confidence in his dreams and in himself had grown strong, the devil set before him a magnificent dream: Jew enjoying the beatitude of heaven, while Christians were tortured with the torments of hell. Then the devil – in the guise of an angel, of course, or of some Old Testament saint – advised the monk to accept Judaism so as to be able to have a share in the beatitude of the Jews. This the monk did without the least hesitation (On Reasoning. Philokalia, part 6)
Enough has been said to explain to our beloved brethern, contemporary monks, how foolish it is to pay attention to dreams, still more to believe and trust them, and what terrible harm can come from relying on them. From paying attention to dreams, faith and trust in them invariably creeps into the soul. Therefore, even paying attention to them is strictly forbidden.
When nature is renewed by the Holy Spirit, it is governed by entirely different laws from fallen nature persisting in its fallen state. The ruler of renewed man is Holy Spirit.
Speaking of those who are renewed, St Macarius the Great says, “The grace of the Divine Spirit illumines them, and is settled in the depth of their mind. Thus the Lord is as their soul.” (Sermon 7. Ch.12) And both awake and asleep they remain in the Lord, without sin, without earthly and carnal thoughts and fantasied. Their thoughts and fantasies that while during sleep are outside the control of the human will and reason, act in them under the control of the Spirit and not as with others unconsciously at the demand of nature. Thus the dreams of those who are renewed have spiritual significance. So St Joseph learned in a dream of the mystery of the incarnation of God the Word; in a dream he was told to escape to Egypt, and in another dream to return to Israel (Matt. chapter 1 and 2).
Dreams sent by God bring with them an irrefutable conviction or certainty. This conviction can be understood by God's saints, but it is incomprehensible to those who are still struggling with the passions.